The Bonsai Kid
A young Oregonian believes that he can create a uniquely American form of the Japanese bonsai tree. And he is literally betting the farm on the idea that if he builds it, they will come.
By NANCY LEBRUN
At six o’clock on a July morning, during one of the hottest stretches in northwest Oregon’s recorded history, Ryan Neil trots out the door of his hilltop home and down a short gravel path in his nursery to check on more than a million dollars worth of small, delicate trees. Neil is a professional bonsai artist, and he’s borrowed heavily against his trees, his house and his property to pursue a quest for a new, all-American form of bonsai that will be recognized as a true art form. If the trees die, so does his dream.
As a major step in his master plan, the 34 year-old Neil, a fit and even-featured all-American type, is mounting a juried exhibit of bonsai in late September at the Portland Museum of Art—an event he conceived, developed and paid for with a loan against his home and business. He’s not sure how he’ll pay off the mountain of debt, which exceeds $420,000, but he’s all in.
The Artisans Cup, as he calls it, attracted six hundred submissions, out of which only seventy have made it to the final round of judging. The top tree will win the Cup and $10,000. Most of the entries are styled in the traditional Japanese manner, but for Neil (who as founder did not enter any of his own trees), the real prize is the chance to proselytize for a shift to a whole new American art form. Neil is intent on breaking away from the fifteen hundred years of Japanese traditions that most American bonsai practitioners follow.
Japanese bonsai generally draws from the country’s relatively calm, homogenous landscape with its limited number of species. Instead, Neil wants to see American bonsai embrace the energy and diversity of the American terrain. To do that, he wants bonsai artists to use “trees collected from the harsh conditions of America’s mountains, deserts, and coastlines.” In Neil’s opinion, this would give bonsai artists an opportunity—untapped thus far—to bring out “the unbridled” quality of American trees through “asymmetry and dynamic movement.” And that, Neil argues, would give bonsai a kind of wildness that “speaks to the freedom in American culture.” These trees may be small, but Neil thinks big.
Bonsai is part art, part craft, part horticulture, and part philosophy. It’s sometimes described as a collaboration between man and nature, but at its core, it is about imagining how a tree might grow in the wild, and interpreting that vision in miniature. Or, as Neil puts it, “Bonsai is supposed to take you to the place where that tree was growing without you having to actually go there.” While this may seem to be the most natural of credos, it’s anything but. The bonsai artists’ ultimate worth is measured by how well they can manipulate a tree—sometimes pushing it to its limits—to make a living, changing thing become something of ongoing artistic value. Neil may interpret those limits rather differently from standard bonsai practice, but his vision grew out of years spent closely studying classical Japanese technique.
Bonsai (correctly pronounced, “bone-sigh” rather than “bahn-zai”) originated in China around 600 A.D, although there is evidence that it may go back another millennium. In Chinese, it’s called Penjing, which means, rather prosaically, “tray scenery.” After Japanese monks imported the practice from China in the 12th century, bonsai was taken up by the aristocracy, which turned the art form into a symbol of high rank and prestige. When Japan opened up to the West, in the mid-19th century, bonsai’s appeal spread. After World War II and the Korean War, the art form gained a whole new audience when American GI’s returned home with some little trees in their baggage. Today, according to bonsai expert and author Peter Warren, the U.S. is one of the countries in which interest in bonsai is rising the fastest. It’s a good time for an artist like Neil to push some boundaries.
Neil’s property, called Mirai, is perched on a hillside with a widescreen view of the Columbia River Valley and a scent of pine in the air. He named it after a Japanese word that implies an ever-evolving future or vision, which seems apt, given his desire to transform the face of bonsai. Beyond a 14-foot tall cedar and iron gate that is more about form than function (there is no fence attached to it), are rows of long, narrow wooden tables. These hold most of the trees, which range from roughly eight inches to almost four feet in height. Some meet the delicate, manicured image that most people have of bonsai, but others are powerful beasts with dramatically twisted trunks and branches, as though nature has been at work on them for eons. Some are indeed centuries old, but for most of them, it’s Neil who does much of the work rather than time, wind and water.
Late one evening, as Neil sat in his rustic, open studio in front of a two-foot tall conifer, he slowly but aggressively bent one of its main branches, moving it from horizontal to very nearly vertical. The branch looked as though it might break at any moment, but the wire that Neil had wrapped around it kept it intact—just barely. This is how a tree learns to live the life of a bonsai.
The next morning, Neil walked past a row of conifers, checking for signs of stress. Bonsai are fragile, partly due to their shallow root systems—forced upon them by the small pots in which they’re planted in order to stunt their growth. That fragility meant that Neil and his one employee had to prevent more than a thousand small trees from keeling over in the day’s 90-plus degree temperatures. If you don’t know what you’re doing, a bonsai nursery can become a forest of very expensive sticks very quickly.
Neil’s fascination with bonsai began when he was 12, growing up in the Rocky Mountain town of Glenwood Springs, Colorado. He’d been taking Tai Kwan Do classes since he was eight, which led to many DVD viewings of the martial arts film The Karate Kid. One day, Neil became engrossed in a scene in which the karate master, Mr. Miyagi, is tending a small tree. Miyagi hands the pruning scissors to his student, and tells him to imagine the tree the way he would like it to be. Daniel, the student, is hesitant at first, but after taking a few tentative snips is clearly enthralled. So was Neil. He started reading about the trees and tried his hand at his first bonsai at 14 (he still has it, a Ponderosa pine).
As he studied up, reading magazines like Bonsai Today, Neil found an article on a famous Japanese bonsai master named Masahiko Kimura. In the time-honored world of Japanese bonsai, Kimura was an outlier; a radical who pushed his trees into dramatic shapes never seen before, with extreme, sculptural bends in the trunks and branches. To Neil, these forms were magical, and he resolved to become Kimura’s apprentice.
Japanese bonsai generally adheres to strict traditions and draws from a relatively calm, homogenous landscape with a limited number of species. Neil wants to embrace the American landscape’s expansive drama. “I want people to say, ‘Holy Shit!’ Or ‘I hate that!’ I’m trying to push the envelope.”
One morning, five years later, while majoring in horticulture as a sophomore at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, Neil was helping a Japanese-American bonsai artist, Ben Oki, in his garden. When he told Oki about his dream, the bonsai artist offered to introduce Neil to Kimura, if Neil could get himself to Japan. At this point, Neil had accumulated some savings from cleaning offices, bussing tables and working for landscaping companies. So he tabled his studies and set off with Oki. After touring several bonsai gardens, Neil and Oki finally approached what Neil considered the holy land—Kimura’s studio, in a small town outside Tokyo. Neil was struck by Kimura’s power immediately. “He had an aura about him,” Neil recalls. “He really commanded respect. It was kind of instant humility for me. Apprentices were running around, predicting his every move and handing him what he needed without him asking – and I wanted to be part of that.”
On this particular day, Kimura was restyling a 1,000-year-old spruce. To Neil, the process “was almost a religious experience”—like he was seeing his god at work. It seemed, he recalls, as though Kimura gave the tree a soul. At one point, Oki buttonholed the master and introduced Neil as a potential apprentice. Kimura laughed and said there was no way an American could even dream of having the necessary discipline. Neil was undeterred. After returning home, he wrote Kimura a letter repeating his request to come study with him, but received no response. He wrote another letter, and again heard nothing. “I wrote him a letter a month for two years,” Neil recalls. “The month before I graduated from college, he wrote me back and said, ‘Stop writing letters. You’re welcome to come try but don’t plan on staying long.’”
Neil promptly got on a plane, with limited funds and speaking no Japanese. After arriving, he was given a small stipend for room and board, which allowed him to find a tiny apartment near Kimura’s studio. Neil was the youngest and the only American out of six students, and he started at the bottom. After a few weeks, he says, “I was, like, holy shit, I didn’t sign up for this. It was way worse than I ever could have imagined.” His duties included scrubbing toilets, washing rags for hours at a low stone sink and weeding the lawn with tweezers. He worked a seven-day week, often till midnight, and then had to clean the workshop before the older apprentices (senpai) arrived in the morning.
When he did get a chance to be around the trees, Neil says, “Mr. Kimura never explained a single thing to me. I didn’t speak the language for two years, but I sat and watched him.” His techniques were drastic, using heavy clamps that exerted thousands of pounds of pressure on unusually large, living sections of trunks and branches, radically altering the tree’s direction. It sometimes seemed as though Kimura was brutalizing his trees. He was no Mr. Miyagi. Instead, he was a taskmaster who blew cigarette smoke into Neil’s face as Neil worked, telling him that if he weren’t hard on him, he wouldn’t remember the lessons.
In Japan as an apprentice, Neil was the youngest and the only American out of six students, and he started at the bottom. After a few weeks, he says, “I was, like, holy shit, I didn’t sign up for this. It was way worse than I ever could have imagined.”
A bonsai apprenticeship, if you last, goes on for about five years, though it’s up to the master to decide when you have completed your training. As you move up the ladder from washing rags, you begin to learn things like the relationship between roots and branches (they should parallel each other); techniques for styling the fourteen basic types of bonsai; each tree’s intrinsic purpose, and how to handle an array of species from maples to pears, quinces to pines; how to thin congested “nodes,” which are the bumps from which buds grow; the language of bonsai such as shohin (a bonsai under 10 inches) and mame (even tinier); which seasonal tasks are required for which trees; how to prune roots; how to manipulate the tree’s growing direction—and how to keep the damn thing alive.
Neil learned a lot by failing. “I would see my master doing groundbreaking work,” he remembers, “and I would go home and buy a very inexpensive tree and I would apply the technique. I had a freezer box, and by the end of my apprenticeship I had a freezer full of 76 dead trees. That box was my learning curve. No one who’s ever going to be proficient at bonsai is going to do so without killing a tree.” Neil soon learned that the horticulture was one thing, the artistry quite another. “The first two or so years of my apprenticeship was 90 percent of what I needed—the technique,” Neil says. “The remainder [another three years] was the last 10 percent—understanding how you achieve interesting design.”
During his fifth year in Japan, Neil began to think about what an American style of bonsai could be, and the idea took root. He wasn’t yet sure of its form, but he knew it should represent something essential about American culture, as well as its environment. Part of what inspired him was how unusually aggressive Kimura was with his trees, daring to push them in directions they would not otherwise go. There was a boldness in Kimura’s style, which he began to think might work well with the boldness of the American landscape.
For some apprentices, including Neil, the experience teaches you not only about trees but also about yourself. To Kimura, the goal of learning bonsai was to train the heart as much as the tree. “What I learned,” Neil says, “is if I don’t trust my gut, I will fail.” After five years living that lesson, Neil now seems to have it in his blood. “Whether it’s rehabbing my house or creating the Artisans Cup or being in intense financial peril, my capacity to do what I do is a total product of my apprenticeship.”
After his five-year apprenticeship, Neil spent an additional year working for Kimura—a way of repaying your debt to your master. Kimura never softened, but he did treat Neil less as a student and more as a peer. Occasionally, he even asked Neil’s opinion.
In 2010, Neil returned to the U.S, intent on starting a nursery unlike any other. Although he’d never set foot in Oregon, he chose the state partly because just about anything can grow in its temperate, wet climate. (Oregon is often called the nursery capital of the world, and a single region near Portland—the Willamette Valley—provides 85-90 percent of the stock to U.S. nurseries.) But the main advantage to the area was a ready supply of yamadori—rough, scrubby-looking trees that have the potential to become bonsai. Over the next three years he acquired $1 million worth from a local collector.
He also invested cash and considerable sweat equity to turn a run-down, semi-rural property outside Portland into a fitting setting for his creations. He carved a nursery space out of the forest, building bonsai display spaces and adding flowering ground cover and native perennials, all punctuated with full-sized specimen trees – Japanese maples, dramatic evergreens, and a splendid flowering plum. Neil financed all this by teaching bonsai workshops around the country, which kept him on the road, he says, “nine months of the year.”
Among Neil’s bonsai, the conifers predominate, especially the big ones with twisted trunks and fissures, some growing almost upside down. These are the trees that have come to reflect his American bonsai dream. “I don’t want people to look at my trees and say, ‘Oh that’s nice,’ Neil says. “I don’t want the trees to be passive and quiet and reserved. I want people to actually respond.” And what sort of response does he hope his trees will elicit? “I want people to say, ‘Holy Shit!’ Or ‘I hate that!’ I’m trying to push the envelope. Nothing about Mirai is really that relaxing. These are pretty energetic trees.”
There is a lot of money coming into Mirai, but there is also a lot going out. When Neil started the nursery, he handled the business side of it in “the typical artist’s way of doing things, “ he says. “It was a total shit show.” Eventually, his wife Chelsea, an attorney, quit her immigration law practice to help Neil, and finances and communications now seem to be under control. But the economics of bonsai are, to put it mildly, challenging.
In this video, Ryan Neil offers a tour of Mirai and discusses his work. (Film by Ryan J. Bush.)
To balance the books, Neil and Chelsea have turned their bonsai interests into a multi-faceted business. They sell trees, teach, consult, and even offer a kind of tree day-care service, boarding other people’s bonsai and providing maintenance. For a skill as rarified as bonsai, these services can be lucrative. On the teaching front, for example, Neil typically has about 80 students who pay between $1600 and $2400 a year for the privilege of spending several days at Mirai during periods when the trees need a lot of work. Then there are Mirai’s sales, which average 20 to 30 trees a year, with prices ranging from about $1,200 to tens of thousands. On the other side of the ledger, Neil admits, “our overhead is very high. We’ve already spent about $45,000 on pots this year. I think we showed a profit for the first time last year, our fourth year in a business.”
All these years of study and hard work have given Neil an air of apparently unshakeable confidence, at times bordering on swagger. “I pursue bonsai here with the same level of craftsmanship, professionalism and daily dedication that I would in Japan,” he told me at one point. “I have a knowledge of how plants work – and I’m the only person in this country who’s applied that knowledge to bonsai and been able to make sense of it.”
Neil’s prowess has won plenty of admirers—Warren, the author and expert, calls him “unparalleled”—as well as some detractors. There is a distinct tinge of competition among some bonsai professionals. Warren believes that Neil intimidates some of them because he’s trying to raise the bar, which could lower the value of their own work. Neil also represents a challenge to those who are committed to traditional Japanese bonsai and see no reason for change. That’s one reason the Artisans Cup is risky – it’s unclear if the bonsai community will support it. If they don’t, it could become much harder to spread the word, as Neil sees it defined. This fact is frustrating for Neil, who has a hard time understanding why everyone won’t join his vision.
The common perception is that bonsai artists do their work by pruning and snipping very small trees so that they stay dwarfed, but it’s much more complicated than that. “The hardest part,” Neil points out, “is that you’re creating a sculpture with something that’s alive. You’re constantly faced with the opportunity for a piece that you’ve been working on for forever to die, and you’re going to be contorting it and pushing it to the limit of what it can tolerate to realize this greater vision.”
Before Neil begins work on raw stock, he already has a vision of what the tree should become, inspired by the innate qualities of the tree—bonsai artists often talk about “listening to the tree.” He will spend four to five days on a juniper—his signature species—just for its first styling. At this point, the tree will have been given at least two years to recover from the trauma of its removal from the wild. Neil begins by clearing out lower branches that are “hiding the design.” Once the most dramatic parts of the trunk are exposed, he removes areas of bark with an electric grinder to reveal the deadwood underneath, called jin.
The economics of bonsai are, to put it mildly, challenging; bonsai is not for the faint of heart or wallet.
Using a small knife or a tool similar to an awl, Neil now carves the deadwood to enhance its features, trimming leaves and needles as he goes. Throughout the process, he’s aiming for a combination of negative space and foliage that forms the bonsai’s ideal silhouette. As soon as he’s ready to shape the branches, he supports the ones that he plans to manipulate the most by wrapping them with raffia, a sort of ribbon made from palm leaves. Then he wraps parts of the trunk and remaining branches with flexible wire. As he twists and turns the wire-reinforced sections, a new form emerges.
Once this stage is complete, Neil paints the dead wood with foul-smelling lime sulfur, which whitens these sections to heighten their contrast to the live, cinnamon-colored parts of the trunk, known as “living veins.” All this is accomplished with a set of diminutive tools—shears, pruners, pliers, knives, steel brushes and gougers. After this initial styling, Neil gives the tree 12 to 18 months to recover, “letting it be a tree,” he says. Then he begins the delicate process of re-potting.
The shallowness of a bonsai pot poses several challenges. Beyond the difficulty of keeping the tree alive, such an unstable foundation often requires intricate engineering and cantilevering to hold the tree at the preferred angle—which can be extreme—without toppling over. Even the choice of the pot is a major decision, like choosing a frame for a painting. To bonsai artists it can make or break the final display, which is something the tree will be living with for a long time. A Japanese white pine that resides in the Tokyo Imperial Palace has been in training for 550 years. Another tree, which some sources have estimated to be up to 800 years old, has reportedly commanded the highest price ever paid for a bonsai: $1.3 million.
Neil has now reduced his travel for conferences and workshops to about four weeks a year, and at a bonsai symposium at a hotel near Baltimore, Maryland, in June, he led a four-day workshop for six people, all of whom had been working with bonsai for years. (Virtually all of the participants at this conference were men, as were all six of those in Neil’s workshop—a tilt that seems to be the norm in bonsai.) As the men chose their material from a group of exhausted-looking conifers, it quickly became apparent that their talents varied widely.
What attracted them to bonsai also differs: one man said he was doing it to learn patience; another, with a smile, admitted that it gets him away from the kids. The students peppered Neil with questions both horticultural and technical. How long does nitrogen remain in the soil? (Four weeks.) What temperature does a tree start metabolizing what’s in the soil? (42 degrees Fahrenheit.) The atmosphere was simultaneously relaxed and intense, just like Neil. When asked why they signed up for the $1,000 workshop, the students described Neil as a “rock star,” “a magician,” and “the best teacher in the country.”
At events like these, Neil tries to challenge aspiring bonsai artists to translate his broader vision to their own environment. While Neil’s styles often reflect the American west, with its rugged, asymmetrical shapes, he realizes that aesthetic is not applicable nationwide. He’d like to see bonsai artists capture the landscape that produces the calming umbrella of an American elm, the grace of a dogwood; or the primitive, exotic bald cypress of the Louisiana swamps. At the end of the four days in Baltimore, some of the students’ trees had come close to this ideal, some not. But all had been shaped, carved, wired, bent, twisted and trimmed. They look like bonsai.
In the hotel hallways and later, by phone and email, Neil chatted people up, drumming up promises for attendance at Portland’s Artisans Cup. A few sponsors had come in, but the expenses were mounting and the custom displays, designed by a high-end architecture firm, were going over budget. With each passing day, Neil was getting a new sense of the stakes in his gamble—and what he plans to do about it if he loses. “If the bonsai community is unwilling to put themselves out there to help American bonsai recognize its potential,” Neil says, “then I don’t want to be a part of the community anymore. I love bonsai, I love Mirai, I love these trees, but it is a tremendous burden. If people aren’t going to support what we do, then losing Mirai might not be the worst thing. That’s why we put it all on the line.”
By September 27th, when the Artisans Cup is awarded, Neil believes he’ll have a sharper sense of how far he can spread his artistic message. He might, eventually, earn back the $420,000 loan he borrowed to launch this competition. Or he might not. Either way is fine with him. “We didn’t put the Artisans Cup on because it was an intelligent business decision,” Neil says. “We saw it as a vehicle to set the bar higher.”
To increase the chances of raising the bar, Neil has a few tricks up his sleeve beyond the Cup. He has started conversations about exhibits with several museums in New York City, to introduce people not only to bonsai, but to his vision for a new American approach to it. The Museum of Modern Art, in New York, is already considering such an event for 2025. “The Cup is not about monetary success, he says. “The story of Mirai, the Cup and the trees that we present—if those ideas are spread through American culture—that would be success.”
In the meantime, there is an unending list of tasks and responsibilities at Mirai. Throughout the summer, the heat continued almost unabated, cracking one hundred degrees toward the end of July. So the trees demanded constant attention, and there was a daily torrent of texts and emails about the Artisans Cup. But things were starting to look good. Many of the Cup events were sold out, with people coming from as far away as Brazil, France and Australia. As of mid-September, Neil had sold nearly 1,200 tickets to the event. In an email, Neil wrote that it is “exhilarating and terrifying” in this final run up to the show. Maybe even the trees are starting to absorb Neil’s energy. In the window of the design firm that’s creating the displays for the Cup, one of Neil’s bonsai, a pear, has borne one tiny fruit.
In the end, turnout for the Artisans Cup was a robust 3,200, but admissions and other revenues still ran short of the $420,000 Neil borrowed to stage the event. Read our follow-up report.
If you have an interest in learning to cultivate bonsai trees yourself, this organization lists clubs around the country and in Canada.
For regular updates, you can subscribe to International Bonsai, which describes itself as the “first and only” professional bonsai magazine, has been published since 1979. It’s only available in print, but the website offers sample articles and other information. Bonsai Today, the publication Neil read in his teen years, is no longer published, but back issues are still available through StoneLantern.com.